25 March 2022

This year's Heritage Festival highlights Canberra's oldest culture and language

| Lottie Twyford
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Caroline Hughes

Ngunnawal elder Caroline Hughes says the traditional language can and should be spoken by every Canberran in their daily lives. Photo: Region Media.

Ngunnawal elder Caroline Hughes’ vision for where she’d like to see traditional Ngunnawal language spoken and used in the ACT is big and clear – everywhere and by everyone.

In chair of Winanggaay Ngunnawal Language Aboriginal Corporation’s ideal world, Ngunnawal language would be formally included in school curriculums from early childhood to tertiary and it would be used to open business meetings, taught at informal workshops in the community and spoken in daily life.

Aunty Caroline welcomes what she calls a slow revitalisation of the language locally.

Ngunnawal greetings like ‘Yuma’ (hello) and ‘Yarra’ (goodbye) are becoming more commonplace and the ACT Legislative Assembly now opens every sitting day with a Welcome to Country delivered by the Speaker in Ngunnawal language.

But Aunty Caroline is adamant that more can and should be done to promote speaking Ngunnawal language.

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She knows firsthand how difficult it is not to have this right. As a child, she would often be told by authority figures to find the words she needed in English instead.

“I grew up with some Ngunnawal words… but there were gaps where we used English and the reason that we weren’t fluent was because of past practices that were forced on us,” she says.

“We had children taken away in the Stolen Generation and with the removal of children, there was a disconnect between what was able to be taught in each family and passed onto that child.”

Aunty Caroline says the use of language is important because “we dream in the language that we know and it’s a strong connection back to our ancestors and storytelling”.

She’s also unconvinced by the “too hard” argument, which is often used when it comes to including the teaching of Aboriginal languages in schools.

“Nothing is hard, you just need the will to do it. Aboriginal languages across Australia are just like other languages in Europe like German and French where there are different dialects from different regions.

“This proves that it can be successful in Australia as well,” she notes.

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As with many things, Aunty Caroline thinks what’s really needed to push the revitalisation of Ngunnawal language further along is “that dirty word – funding”.

At the moment, everyone involved with Winanggaay is a volunteer, which isn’t sustainable in the long term, particularly considering the amount of work needed to establish resources like a dictionary and learning guides, which will require taking on a paid linguist and coordinator.

“That has to be the foundation of what we’re doing as we move forwards,” Aunty Caroline says.

The other aspect that’s needed is more public buy-in, which is starting to take off and she can see a “real hunger” from the general public who want to learn more.

This year, the Winanggaay Corporation will be running workshops as part of the annual Heritage Festival to give all Canberrans a taster of the “ancient Ngunnawal culture, language and the revitalisation of that language”.

Aunty Caroline is also clear that these events are open to everyone – Indigenous or not. “It [should be seen] as an opportunity for the general public to engage with a beautiful, ancient language which is quite unique to the ACT,” she explains.

“The more we hear our language, the better it is for us and it really shows Reconciliation.”

Rebecca Vassarotti

Minister for Heritage Rebecca Vassarotti says First Nations’ heritage events have more than tripled at this year’s Heritage Festival. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

Also running as part of the Heritage Festival will be guided walks run by Aboriginal rangers from Birrigai Outdoor School. Participants will explore the Birrigai Rock Shelter – the oldest heritage site in the ACT and one which is five times older than the pyramids of Egypt.

The rangers will also teach people how to make and throw spears and boomerangs.

The full 2022 Heritage Festival program launched on 24 March and further details about more than 150 diverse events will be made publicly available at the ACT Government Environment Website.

Minister for Heritage Rebecca Vassarotti says First Nations’ heritage events had been more than tripled in this year’s program – up from six last year to 22 this year.

“The beauty of living within the Canberra community is that you do not need to venture far to explore the history that is spread across our region,” she says.

The festival runs from 9 April to 1 May 2022 and is now in its 39th year of operation.

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Capital Retro4:35 pm 25 Mar 22

Aunty Caroline should remember that in many other un-funded organisations there are volunteers that are not paid.

Trevor Willis2:27 pm 25 Mar 22

Who, in their right mind would like to learn a language that is not spoken or heard of anywhere else in the state let alone country and the world?
Good luck trying to get students but don’t hold your breath.

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